Current Affairs Irish Republican Military Politics

The New IRA Interview: Armed Struggle Without Purpose

The weekend publication of an interview in The Sunday Times newspaper with representatives of the Army Council of the New Irish Republican Army (NIRA) has raised a number of interesting points. Though the discussion between the investigative journalist John Mooney and the insurgent leaders has been edited down and paraphrased from his handwritten notes, it does provide some insight into the general political and military thinking of the organisation. This seems to focus primarily on the old revolutionary theory of propagande par le fait or the “propaganda of the deed”. That is, the selective use of violent or non-violent methods in symbolic actions designed to accrue publicity and support for a specific cause. This strategy dates back to the revolutionary and anarchist traditions of 19th century Europe and was given some form of quasi-official imprimatur at the International Anarchist Congress of London in 1881.

The most celebrated example from Irish history is probably the Phoenix Park Assassinations by the Irish National Invincibles, a breakaway grouping of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which killed two senior British colonial administrators in Ireland in 1881, outraging the government and press in the United Kingdom. The contemporary Fenian Dynamite Campaign (or Dynamite War) of the early and mid-1880s followed a similar strategy. It involved a series of bomb attacks against high-profile targets in the UK organised and directed by two factions of the Fenian movement in the United States of America, specifically a dissenting element of the main Clan na Gael organisation and a smaller rival known as the United Irishmen of America, led by the legendary revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

Some suggest that the publicity-garnering strikes in the British capital and other cities helped raise the profile of the Irish struggle at a time of low morale and setbacks, marked by the failure of the 1867 Rising and the stalled Fenian Invasions of Canada between 1866 and 1871 (these were large-scale raids from the US by the Irish Republican Army into what was to become Canada; the IRA being the overt military wing of the secret Fenian Brotherhood of America or FBA). Many more argue that both groups did damage to the Irish nationalist cause in the 1800s, setting it back instead of reviving it, splitting the global Fenian tradition and souring relations with the IRB which opposed the European operations of its American and Irish-American comrades.

Whatever the debate over the tactics of armed struggle in the latter half of the 19th century, the New IRA’s justification for armed resistance for the sake of armed resistance in the first half of the 21st century with no overall political and military objectives beyond symbolic defiance is a pretty poor rationale for war even within the peculiar conditions of the British Occupied north of Ireland.

This new band of militant republicans sounds different from the many paramilitary factions and splinter groups I have interviewed before. There was little of the characteristic bravado threatening terror campaigns in England or vain declarations of inevitable victory.

Instead, they were composed and spoke with surprising clarity about their prospects. The army council of the New IRA has no doubt about the public odium that their campaign of violence engenders.

“We fully accept we cannot defeat the British militarily, or even drive them from Ireland, but we will continue to fight for as long as they remain here. The attacks are symbolic. They are propaganda. As long as you have the British in Ireland and the country remains partitioned, there will be an IRA. It doesn’t matter if the two governments imprison the current leadership. Others will still come forward and fight. Being a member of the IRA was never popular.”

The use of violence was justified, they argued…

“Who wouldn’t vote and want peace? But it’s like Brexit. People didn’t know what they were voting for during the peace process. You ask why we organise armed actions. They are symbolic. Our actions serve one purpose.They let the world know there is an ongoing conflict in Ireland. It’s naive to say there’s no war in Ireland. There is. There’s an intelligence war, there’s helicopters in the air, military drones flying around housing estates in Derry, spy planes and undercover units everywhere,” said one of the dissidents.

“We are not interested in being popular. Republicanism has always been a small core of people. It was never populist. To support armed struggle was never popular. In 1916, 1,200 people took part in the Easter Rising. The remnants of those who survived were spat at as they were led away,” he added.

There is a frightening lack of strategic thought here. And a misunderstanding of Irish history. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the establishment of a Provisional Government of an Irish Republic was not a symbolic act. The insurrection was planned and organised by its leaders with the intention of deploying 10,000 armed men and women at key locations across Ireland, exploiting the weaknesses of the British authorities. Though the months of careful preparation failed, over 2,500 people still participated in days of armed rebellion against the United Kingdom, overcoming decades and even centuries of induced deference and fear. And while some of the defeated “rebels” were undoubtedly vilified by onlookers, in other parts of the capital and country significant crowds gathered to cheer the survivors as they were being led away. Reminding us once again that the myth of 1916 and the history of 1916 is not always the same thing. And though one can point to the small groups of Fenian “skirmishers” and “dynamiters” in the late 19th century as an exemplar of Irish revolutionary republicanism, these were the exceptions not the rule.

Armed defiance with no other purpose or achievable aim beyond defiance itself is politically, militarily and morally indefensible. It is a rejection of revolutionary thought, something recognised as long ago as the late 1800s when the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood ruled it out as a strategy. Unarmed resistance, through political, social and cultural action, coupled with communal reconciliation and accommodation is the only viable way forward for revolutionary republicanism if it wishes to achieve a free and reunited Ireland.

14 comments on “The New IRA Interview: Armed Struggle Without Purpose

  1. Pat Murphy

    Nice to see the shinners are using the Times to further their cause. Revolutionary republicans my hole.


  2. Jim McGettigan

    I have wondered how they feel that their success might be measured, given their vague Anarchist strategy to fight the British Army, On top of that 700 agents or 20% of total British Intelligence personnel with modern high tech are actively targeting the New IRA in Northern Ireland.


    • Exactly. How on earth do you measure your success in a deed-style campaign where the only objective is the deed itself? It’s so utterly pointless. If one looks back to PIRA, beyond the propaganda “Victory ’74” and British declaration of withdrawal rhetoric, it was always about getting to the negotiations’ table to thrash something out. PIRA was prepared for compromise well before the 1990s, or at least some of the movement and some of the leadership.


      • The way you put it just there reminded me of the Vietnam War as it was fought though a good part of the campaign-success was defined by metrics that included body county and kill ratios.


  3. Unfortunately, this smell of the nihilism that has become more and more epidemic all over the modern world. I have seen a crazy mentality of “We have no real chance of winning, but we will continue to fight.” This in some ways just seems to take that to a more extreme conclusion.

    I’ve seen a lot of that thinking in Critical Race Theory (since its inception in the late, late 80’s to early 90’s). Which is not to stay that’s where it all started necessarily!!! Yet I’ve seen the prevalence of this stuff in a lot of movements seem to have increased over time. I’ve seen it in English and Russian feminists. In American anti-war activists. Canadian climate change activists. Mexican liberals. Not saying all or even most members of these movements have the nihilism bug, but it’s pervasive, and appears to show up all over the world and on most of the political spectrum.

    Really the nihilism bug in more extreme form is what “ails” many of the Brexiteers, Trumpies, Putin and Erdogan supporters, fans of Jair Bolsonaro and all the “modern day Freikorps” running for lesser offices in Brazil, and the far right in much of Europe.

    I’ve never heard anyone claim the Easter Rising of 1916 was anything but strategic and intended to win a free country. The claim I always heard in school and elsewhere was that the plan was to take advantage of the fact The British Army was tied up and run down by WWI.


  4. One thinks the general idea, old chap, is to slot as many of the RUC such as P.C Ewan Kerr, then go south and get the hat trick after Donohoe and Golden. Tally Ho.


  5. It’s telling that the point is made by dissident adjacent folk in interviews over the weekend that the conflict wasn’t about civil rights or cross border links and that wasn’t what Bobby Sands etc died for or Volunteers went to jail for. That’s certainly a position that allows for serious analysis whether one agrees or disagree. But… by the same token, is any marginal conflict now – a faded echo of the height of the Troubles – worth women and men going to jail or dying for ‘propaganda’ or ‘symbols’? As you say ASF, there’s something indefensible about an armed conflict which those waging it accept cannot succeed on its own terms. There’s the waste of energy, material and human effort and very likely life.

    re 1916 – I don’t think it was intended as an immediate strategic gain Grace, but it was intended as something that could unlock sentiment on the island, prove that armed resistance to Britain was possible. And I suppose there was the hope that if it had gone as originally intended it might have lit a spark that could have fanned into something much broader that as you say the British Army would have found difficult to combat. Be that as it may, there’s a world of difference between that or the 1970s/1980s and sufficient tacit support from communities to allow for continued armed struggle (again whether one agrees or not with that) and taking potshots during tiny skirmishes. There’s simply no tactical or strategic value to the latter, and actually massive evidence that it is utterly counterproductive to the cause that it supposedly is in aid of.


    • Another version events I’ve heard more than once is that during the 1970’s, the Troubles started in part because of an older cohort, who believed the “younguns'” in The Catholic Civil Rights with ideas about emulating Gandhi and MLK were just a bunch of naive, dreamers and pansies. That some on both the Unionists and Republican sides were as hostile to the concept of nonviolent Civil Resistance, as they were to their arch-enemies. Plus the Brits didn’t want another nonviolent Revolution on their hands after losing India that way. Such sentiments, I’ve heard were a factor how The Troubles got started and why they were hard to wind down. Don’t know how much truth there is to that.


      • There’s a degree of truth in that Grace I think. It was very multi-stranded. For example, when the IRA and SF split in 69/70 it’s remarkable how many who one might have expected to go one way ie with say PIRA, went the other with OIRA, and vice versa. And that’s just in one organisation. There were lots of motivations. And even non-violence was a contested term. Civil rights alone was riven between those who wanted very very pacific marches and then those like PD who wanted much more confrontational but still non-violent marches.


  6. The IRA 1969-1997 was never going to defeat the British Army in a conventional sense But it could sicken the British public until they had enough and sued for peace or put pressure on politicians to withdraw the troops. It also policed its own areas and defended those areas from Loyalist attacks.


    • Pearse looked back to the fenians with admiration.

      To fight is to win and all that.

      There logic is sound. The Southern state was founded not by outright military victory but basically propaganda of the deed.

      Its not enough on its own though, need to be able to propaganda on the deed.

      Censorship worked against the provos. They were isolated.

      First thing to happen to this group last week was for their social media accounts to be suspended. Otherside knows it works as well.


  7. But the British censorship backfired when Gerry Adams landed in the USA and was portrayed in the American media as a victim of British heavy handness. The Guerilla Army can always rely on the state to overreact. Hierarchy of victims is something that should always be considered.


    • It was propaganda at a time they were changing direction.

      No I think isolation worked against the provos and this group will have to concider that as well. The state and the leinster hse parties only officially recognised the principle of concent from the late 80s up to Gfa. Provos lost a lot of ground by not being part of the discussion. But catch 22 being in the room means that they have to abide by pera maters which creates contradictions for them.

      In the last two years constitutionalism has said ‘there can be no return to a hard border’. But what they really mean is that there shouldn’t be a return to a hard border. From ó Connell Constitutionalism always mistakenly thinks it is in a plurality and it can win with in the rules and then Britain waves the rules because it can. Perhaps it shouldn’t but it can.

      Think that a distinction has to be made between the word fenian and republican.

      A republican is someone who supports the absence of monarcy. That can include fenians and constitutional nationists. And any one else.

      A fenian is someone who believes a Republic cannot be achieved through constitutional means, that the deck is stacked. That refusing to recognise any authority in the enemy is a starting point and tactics flow from that.

      This group are fenians.

      The provos were fenians, they are now constitutional.

      Everyone wants the same thing but there are misunderstandings in the different methodical approaches.


  8. Good post and a pretty fair assessment IMHO ASF.

    If you have no war aims other than ‘propaganda of the deed’ you are not doing ‘politics by other means’, even assuming the latter is strategically or morally legitimate.

    Liked by 1 person

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